Saturday, June 24, 2006

Progressive writing on sports

Whether you follow sports, or not, it is nearly impossible to argue that athletics and the accompanying spectacle that make up competitions between athletes, particularly the professional variety, are insignificant. Sporting events like the World Cup, have the potential to bring the world together in a way that diplomacy and political machinations rarely can. It can also be a source of conflict and even violence. Despite soccer’s paltry following and anemic performance on the American side, citizens from across the globe tuned in to follow their countrymen as they battled it out on the world stage.

In the United States, professional athletics is the tenth largest industry, generating annual revenue to the tune of $220 billion (check it—I said billion, not million!). Whether professional sports is your cup of tea, or not, it is big business and unless you are living in some shack in Montana, without electricity, pretty damn hard to ignore.

Professional sports wasn’t always this big. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, sports was seen primarily as a working class preoccupation. Bare-knuckle fighting, cock fighting and animal baiting ruled the world of sports, not baseball and football. Yet, 100 years later, we find pro sports clearly in the category of big business, clearly holding sway and influencing the decisions of the American consumer.

While the sports of the early 20th century were hardly the force that we find them to be today, America’s wealthy industrialists and politicians certainly understood the potential that sports and athletics contained, as tools to socialize the masses. It wasn’t by accident that men like Theodore Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan and others began funding organizations like the YMCA, using it to teach sports and ultimately, “values” to the young.

As the popularity of sports grew among workers, factory owners saw great value in starting company teams. The Green Bay Packers, were one such team, as were the Chicago Bears, who began in Decatur, Illinois, as the Decatur Staleys, named after the A.E. Staley Company, a local manufacturing firm.

With the dramatic rise in popularity of professional sports after the first World War, the era of corporate sports had begun. Like any other corporate entity, the world of athletics is rife with both patriotism and profit. Interestingly, despite the corporate orientation of sports and the other negative connotations that this entails, there has been very little writing done that critiques the world of sports. Occasionally, someone like Noam Chomsky will write something about America’s devotion and even, obsession, with professional sports, but even one as erudite and scholarly as Chomsky, misses the mark in his criticism of pro sports.

Recently, I’ve come across a writer named Dave Zirin. Not the first, but certainly one of the few, who have the ability to channel an obvious passion for sports, with an ability to zero in on the elements of money, race and celebrity that tarnish the inherent beauty and qualities of sports.

What’s My Name, Fool?: Sports and Resistance in the United States (Haymarket Books, 2005) chronicles the connections that exist between the world of sport and the larger political and social sphere that sports operates within. Zirin, who is both a political progressive and a passionate fan of sports, turns his journalistic abilities towards helping sports fans understand the larger context within which their favorite players and teams operate.

Too often, political writing dismisses athletics as being both shallow and unimportant. Zirin argues to the contrary, clearly illuminating for his readers, the role that sports plays in our lives. What I like about the book is how he lays a historical foundation, which serves to accompany his commentary on contemporary issues.

Zirin fills in the blanks of our national love affair with sports, showing its legacy of racism, sexism and support for maintaining the status quo. There are chapters devoted better known athletes like Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King and Barry Bonds. Where I found the book most interesting was when he highlighted lesser known, but equally engaging examples of athletes willing to challenge the status quo, such as Manhattanville College women's basketball captain, Toni Smith, who began turnig her back on the American flag during pre-game rendetions of the national anthem.

Of interest to baseball fans of New England, the real curse foiling Red Sox Nation's hopes of post-season glory, had little to do with The Babe and much to do with the fact that the franchise was one of the most racist in the history of major league baseball. While this will come as a shock to the Boston Globe's Dan Shaughnessy and similar sports hacks, who built a profit center during the 90's with their routine trotting out of the "The Curse" to explain every Red Sox failure, the true culprit was the racist culture that permeated the team's management. The Red Sox had opportunities to sign both Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays, but chose to wait until 1959, when they finally brought up a marginal African-American player, Elijah "Pumpsie" Green as their choice to break the color line. The Sox were the last team to integrate, waiting a full 12 years after the Dodgers broke the color line with Jackie Robinson. Zirin also writes about another member of Boston’s sports pantheon, Bill Russell, former Celtic great, who helped the Big Green to 11 NBA titles over his storied career. Russell endured Boston' s racist tendencies with a dignity and fierce pride that amazes to read about it today. Boston still has its share of racist apologists today, as a listen to talk radio inThe Hub will reveal.

For those of us who love sports, but find it hard to stomach the excesses of consumerism, hyper-patriotism and sport's role as apologists for all that’s wrong with America, Zirin’s book, as well as his regular columns at Edge of Sports, are a welcome breath of fresh air and might just be the catalyst that brings us back to the sports we grew up playing and watching, with a renewed understanding and critical appreciation.

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